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05/28/2014 08:26 EDT | Updated 05/28/2014 08:59 EDT

9 Questions For Hassan Yussuff, New Head Of Canadian Labour Congress (Q&A)

CLC

Hassan Yussuff has come a long way from the auto plant factory floor. The Guyanese immigrant made history earlier this month when he became the first challenger to unseat a sitting president of the Canadian Labour Congress.

Yussuff, who was CLC secretary-treasurer, eked out a slim victory over long-time president Ken Georgetti with a message of grassroots renewal and a more militant stance toward governments hostile to the labour movement.

As the first new president in 15 years of the union umbrella organization representing 3.3 million workers, he vows to be an active soldier on the offensive in what he sees as a government-waged war on organized labour.

Yussuff first became active in the union after emigrating to Canada from Guyana and getting a job on the auto shop floor at the CanCar plant in Toronto. He held a number of positions at the former Canadian Auto Workers union and was the CLC’s first minority elected to an executive position in 1999.

In an interview with Huffington Post Canada, Yussuff outlined his vision for the labour movement in a time of extreme uncertainty and unprecedented change.

Q. How has your personal history shaped your view and role in the Canadian labour movement?

Coming as a young immigrant to the country, you don’t know much. It took me about six months to realize I wasn’t going back to Guyana, that this was home. And after I figured out that Canada is home, then I realized I better figure out how I’m going to adapt to my new country. And more importantly, how do I want to integrate myself in society?

I was fortunate after the first two years of college, I did end up with a union job and it was quite interesting because I had no interest in the labour movement, I didn’t know a thing about the labour movement, my dad was not a labour guy back in Guyana.

I did go to a union meeting and I felt something kind of connected … “hmmm, this is interesting.” And I thought this was something I could get involved in and within six to nine months, I was elected … to be a union rep and I learned that nine- tenths of it was to take care of people.

I was fortunate enough to help some older people — as old as my father — that I thought were treated unfairly. They were paid a different rate because they couldn’t speak English very well so they couldn’t pass an exam. I remember going down to the Ministry of Colleges and Universities and insisting they have to come to the workplace, they have to give these men practical tests, which they passed with flying colours and they got a $3 increase in their paycheque per hour. I thought, “This is something I could get used to, this social justice, fighting for equality and fairness for people.” And I never looked back.

Q. Recently, you got even more involved, being elected head of the CLC in an historic election. What do you think it is about you or the mood of members, or both, that convinced people to vote you in?

I think there were two things. One is that people were obviously of the view that the movement is at a very difficult moment in its history and they felt that I was offering something that they were excited about on a personal level and also on a political level.

Most people who know me in the movement, know I am dedicated, I am hardworking, and also that I am a very balanced individual. I think people have always recognized me as principled, but tough, and recognize at the same time that you’ve got to find ways to solve problems.

I basically put myself on the line. I didn’t have to run for office, I didn’t have to challenge the incumbent. But I was principled enough to say we need this change. Fundamentally, whatever the consequence of having to offer myself up, I was prepared to face the decision of the delegates. I think people thought that was very principled and honourable to do that, recognizing the movement doesn’t have a lot of history where incumbents are challenged or defeated for that matter.

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Canadians' Attitudes On Unions (2013)

Q. What do you plan to prioritize in the near future to show union members and all Canadians that the CLC is relevant and important?

Well, I think there has been a systematic attack on the gains we have made since the Second World War in this country in terms of rights and social programs. And I think at many levels a number of governments are waging war on us. Certainly the federal government without any hesitation has been doing more in the eight or nine years that they have been in office to roll back the rights that we have taken for granted for many many decades in this country.

So my view is to define the problem and, more importantly, challenge the movement to say “we’re going to fight to stop that kind of attack and do whatever is necessary to ensure this government understands that if they want to keep waging war on us, that we’re going to respond to that. We’re not looking for a fight but we’re not going to accept this government in a systematic way destroying the things that we have worked for generations to build.”

So we’ve got to [show] Canadians the labour movement is about more than self-interest. It’s about ensuring that every Canadian can enjoy what we enjoy in trade unions in this country.

Q. You have said that unions once again have to go on the offensive after facing years of declines. So how are you going to go about that?

For so long forces that are opposed to the labour movement have been defining us and we must redefine ourselves to the Canadian public.

We also have to connect with our own members who have joined the labour movement not because they fought to form a union but because the union already existed when they came to the workplace.

We have to remind people about the importance of the role that the union is playing in their workplace. We’ve got to do a better job in outreach to the social movement and the broader public in places that I don’t think we have been as visible.

One of the points I’ve been stressing is that we’ve got to do more work to broaden our connection to ethnic communities. On a day-to-day basis, my job is to start getting our movement ready in terms of mobilization at the grassroots level. Collectively, we've got huge strength across this country. We will have to join together in the public and private sectors to talk about the future and ensure that we do have a future.

Q. Do you see the decline of unionization as reversible? And if so, how?

One of the most remarkable stories which has yet to get the kind of attention it requires is we have been able to maintain union density now for almost 30 years despite facing some of the most intense change on many levels within that period.

We’ve been able to maintain density at over 31 per cent [ in Canada]. When we look at most other industrialized countries around the world, density actually took a dive and continues to fall. And I think my challenge to our movement is to say: “We’ve got to do a better job to recruit members to join our ranks.”

But of course it’s going to take a systematic approach. … Most importantly [we have to] have an outreach strategy to recognize the country isn’t what it used to be 20, 30, 40 years ago. It’s different.

We also have to respond to the changing orientation of the workforce in this country. More than 50 per cent of women are in the workforce and we have to be more sensitive to women and gender issues. Similarly there are more people of colour in the workforce today than any time in history. We have to appeal to them, to say, “you belong in the labour movement,” [to show them] how we can improve their economic and social well being. And in addition, to that we have to do a better job of reaching out to the aboriginal community.

Q. Given that we are seeing the increase of precarious work, a trend away from employer loyalty and toward short-term contracts and part-time positions, how is it possible to increase union membership?

If you talk to those people who work part-time and temporary [jobs] they will tell you that they would prefer to have a union, even with their precarious employment because at least they will have better benefits. More importantly, their employer has to treat them fairly. I think there is not an easy answer to that issue. The labour movement has to see [the] precarious workforce as part of the base they have to [reach out] to and, more politically, they need to put enormous pressure on governments to provide legislation that will give these workers some basic protection.

Q. What is the biggest threat to the labour movement out there right now?

The biggest threat is this government using their power [under] a majority government to attack labour for an unjustified reason. In 18 months, they’ve legislated workers six times back to work. Basically the message the government is sending is: negotiations are no longer about the wage gains workers should be able to make or the improvements to their lives because they’re going to try to intervene to stop that from happening. If governments cease their attack on the labour movement, I think employers will take their cue.

The movement needs to recognize that we’ve got enormous opportunity to grow. We’ve got to send a clear message that the labour movement is open and accessible and we have to utilize that to figure out how we outreach and try and grow the movement.

Q. How big is the threat of U.S.-style “right to work” legislation, which makes mandatory union dues illegal, and relatedly, how safe is the Rand formula, which establishes mandatory union dues in a unionized work environment?

We can never take for granted that a government or other forces in society would not push to try and eliminate the Rand formula.

We have to ensure that this reality does not happen in Canada. There’s been a recognition both from employers and [some] governments ... that workers benefit from the collective bargaining process, that it is fair they contribute to the union because they benefit from it. In other words there is no free ride here.

There are governments that will be elected who feel compelled to challenge this because they see it as a way to weaken unions. But we’ve polled Canadians on this question: “Do you think workers who benefit from a collective agreement should pay union dues?” And the answer is absolutely, the numbers are in the 80 to 90 per cent range. There’s a recognition that it’s about fairness. It’s the same as paying taxes in this country. If you benefit from our healthcare system, there’s a recognition you must contribute your fair share to this. It’s the same way with union dues.

Q. What do you think is the most underreported labour story in this country?

The day-to-day work that the labour movement does to represent its members.

About 99 per cent of collective agreements in this country are settled without strikes or disputes, yet you will never see an article or story about that. The things that get the most coverage, of course, [are] the small number of workers who do end up going on strike, and of course that characterizes the entire movement.

Our motivation is to try and work for a settlement. There are pages of newspapers devoted to reporting on businesses every day and yet there is very little reporting on the labour movement.

This text has been edited for clarity and paraphrased in some instances.